Secret Life: Professor Levitt

It’s no secret that Stephen Ross Levitt, associate professor in the Department of History and Political Science in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, is one of the most informed professors on German affairs, but most students are unaware of the history and impact that Germans and Germany have had on his life.

Levitt’s areas of focus include war crimes, comparative law and international law, and he is known for his candor and eclectic teaching style.

Levitt offered some insight on his yearly travels to Germany and how they’ve shaped his teaching career.

How did you start traveling?

“I don’t remember how I got it, but when I was 8 years old, I caught pneumonia and had to stay home for three weeks. I told my grandparents I was sad and bored from being at home, so my grandfather asked what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘Let’s go somewhere warm,’ and he said, Lets go to Florida,’ and I told him, ‘We’ve been there before,’ so we ended up going to Malaga, Spain. Also, when I was 10, my grandparents took me to Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. I thinks that’s pretty good for a 10 year old. Moreover, by the time I was 16, I went to Israel and worked on an archaeological dig with two Ph.D. students. So, as a child, I had a lot of travel experience.”

What was one of the most spontaneous traveling experiences you’ve had?

“It sounds really stupid, but when I was 40, I thought, ‘There are certain things that I want to do now.’ For some reason, I was thinking, ‘What if I don’t live much longer?’ It was really stupid, but one of my friends lived in Sweden, and I said to him, ‘I want to see the Arctic Circle,’ so we took the train to a town called Kiruna, at the very top of Sweden. Kiruna is north of the Artic Circle, which means that, if you’re there in the middle of summer like June or July, the sun never sets, so we went there and experienced that, and I liked it. It was different.“

You’re traveling experiences are enviable, and most students know of your travels to Germany. How did that start?

“As a young boy living in Toronto during the 60s, I was surrounded by families who relocated from countries in Europe that were affected by World War II. I had friends whose parents came from these countries. My oldest friend, whom I’ve know since I was five, his mother was from a small town in Austria, and his father was from Vienna, therefore, I had this link to people who spoke German at very young age.  I heard their stories, and I had a good understanding of Europe before I ever visited. I had all versions of the European experience. So I guess you could say, as a child, I developed a link to Germany.”

What was your first time traveling alone to Germany like?

My friend and I were in Belgium, and I told him I wanted to go to Germany. His parents said, ‘No,” because he was Jewish, so I decided to take a train from Mechelen, Belgium, to Munich. On the train ride, I was sitting beside some young Germans who had just visited Britain. We started to talk, and they told me that the British were mean to them because they thought that they were Nazis. It was funny because I told them that that was 30 or 40 years ago, maybe their parents weren’t even Nazis. Anyway, they were really sweet and offered me a place to stay and something to eat. They were very nice, and I will never forget that experience.”

How and why did you start traveling to Germany every summer?

Well, I traveled there a couple of times. I went twice when I was in undergrad, and I went once in law school. At the end of my law school, I went to the London School of Economics, and I studied there for a year and a quarter, which was very significant because, while writing one of my papers, a lady who worked in the archives suggested a man named Jörg Friedrich. He helped me with my paper, and I remember at the end of the talk I said to him, ‘Wow, you really know your stuff.’ Friedrich is a popular and controversial German author whose writings are usually critical of Germany. But, for some reason, he decided, one day, to write about how other countries affected Germany called ‘The Fire.’ His book sold hundreds of thousands of copies, so he gained a lot of attention and recognition. So I started to meet a lot of people in Germany, prominent people, from lawyers to deans to ex-communists. It really attracted me to the country and gave me the type of insight that helps me to teach with detail and clarity. I just kept going back and learning more and meeting better people each time. And, honestly, it’s very hard for me to give up my friends, so I love going back to visit them every summer.”

Where do you stay, and what do you do there in the summers?

Every year, I go back to the same street in Berlin, where I rent a unit from the same landlord. I visit my friends and their families; we go out to eat or drink tea. I have a hard drive full of pictures of my vacations, if you don’t believe me. But I understand that, when I’m Germany, great people surround me, so I make sure I take the opportunity to ask questions. I mean, I work with the German legal systems, so, as an outsider, I need help to know the in’s and out’s, so I ask questions, and they are always willing to answer. I’ve met all types of people in Germany, people who most would say, ‘Levitt, he’s a bad guy, why would you go talk with him?’ It doesn’t matter because they give you their knowledge, so meeting someone from a communist party or a German judge is all a part of the learning experience for me. I mean, prominent German professors have even helped me to write my legal studies textbook. And I don’t always just stay in Germany ― I visit my friends in London and, sometimes, I even go back to the same street that I lived on when I was going to school there. I like doing that ― it brings back memories.”

Do you think you’ll ever move there permanently?

“I go there every summer ― there’s no need to move there permanently right now. Going there every summer is enough.”

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